Google+'s unexpected automatic emails might have violated someone's restraining order

Google's obsession with making people use its confusing, overwhelming social network continues - and it might have violated one man's restraining order.

The difference between Google+ and Facebook isn’t just popularity - although popularity is a big difference, with 540 million versus 1.2 billion at the last count - but also mechanic. Facebook was a social network that people chose to join, and despite the occasional bit of mission creep it’s still possible to leave Facebook and not have to change the way you use the rest of the web.

Google+, on the other hand, is how Google ties together each of its many different services, in the process creating a unified picture of who each user is and what it is that they do. That’s why it insists on such unpopular moves as integrating YouTube accounts with Google+, destroying existing communities and forcing people to use their real name. Google’s insistence on sneaking in new functionality for its social network can have unintended consequences, like jail.

According to Julie Manganis of the Salem News (a local paper in Massachussetts), a man violated a restraining order taken out against him by an ex-girlfriend by sending her an email. Only thing is, he claims he didn’t send it. Here’s a snippet:

Gagnon, of 10 Wilson St., Beverly, was arrested Thursday evening at his home, 90 minutes after his former girlfriend went to the police station with a printed copy of the Google Plus invitation and the restraining order.

Police agreed that the invitation violated the order, and obtained an arrest warrant.

But Gagnon’s attorney, Neil Hourihan, called the complaint “absolutely unfounded.”

Hourihan suggested that unlike Facebook, which requires users to select potential friends, he believes Google Plus generates invitations for “anyone you’ve ever contacted.”

As anyone who’s ever used Google+ knows, sending out emails by mistake - or even realising you have a profile you’re not sure you ever signed up for - can be a common occurrence. This week, a trans woman was outed to her employer thanks to Google integrating its Hangouts app with SMS texting on Android. Or there was Google Buzz, which threatened the safety of activists around the world by making their email contact lists public in 2010.

Yesterday Google quietly announced another new feature for Gmail users that they might not want. Anyone with Gmail can send emails to any Google+ user that they have connected with, even if that person hasn’t shared their Gmail address. That’s useful if you want anyone you connect with on Google+ to also have access to your Gmail address, and vice versa, but of course for many people - perhaps most people - those two services will be used for different things, and giving away the same information across two different services is something people tend not to want to do accidentally.

Opting out of this new feature is easily done within Gmail’s settings (look for the “email via Google+” category and choose “no one”), but of course the best thing Google could do is stop annoying people by making them use Google+ when they don’t want to. Not holding our breath that’ll happen any time soon.

Google's logo, on a wall. (Photo: Robert Scoble/Flickr)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.